Saturday, October 10, 2009

Block Head

Oh, my. Every once in a while, the stars align and a bunch of games all show up at the same time. Rarely, however, do they all come from one company and all involve blocks. And the company isn't Columbia Games. It's GMT, who seems to have embraced the block idea about as much as it's possible to do.

So it is that I ended up getting five, count 'em, five games involving blocks within the past month from GMT. There were a few other games in there, one of which was *not* Richard III from Columbia, the only block game they've put out so far this year (their last game was Texas Glory).

Unfortunately, I have yet to play any of these games for the obvious reason - these are *block* games, which means that they tend to have a pretty strong hidden information element. Right now, I am doing little face-to-face wargaming, most of it is solitaire (which I am enjoying quite a bit, see previous posts), so only a couple of these games will be interesting without an opponent. I remain hopeful, however.

First up is PQ-17, a game about running convoys to Russia via the Barents Sea. Obviously, this is a game that requires a high degree of uncertainty about enemy forces and positions. I met the designer some years ago at WBC, and he was a great guy (as so many of the people at WBC are). In fact, I had been telling him about how I had been a playtester of sorts for Zero! but when the developer disappeared (literally) I wasn't sure if I'd still have that vanity counter. He actually came across a ballroom to show me my counter a few days later. What a guy.

My good friend KC told me that a common acquaintance, "Tex," had invited him over to play this very game, using the example of play as a starting point. I don't know that this was a great idea given how the example turns out, not to mention that this is a pretty involved game with a *ton* of chrome, and KC has stayed away from wargames because of the ultra-high rules and often situational complexity. He was, in a word, whelmed by the game, but expressed an interest to me to try another game to see what it was that those of us who like this sort of thing find attractive. Unfortunately, I suspect this game, like Elusive Victory and a host of other games, will never see real table time. Maybe when I retire.


The game uses a wide variety of counters to represent units, from discs for aircraft (of varying sizes to distinguish broad types), 1" square counters to represent ships, and the blocks to represent the various task forces and convoys. I have to say that the game components are screaming to be played, and this sort of situation is one that I've always been interested in ever since reading 80's era Clancy novels. I may need to make the hour run out to Tex's sometime just to get a game of this in, now that I think about it.

Coming at the same time was 1805: Sea of Glory. The topic is the start of the Napoleonic Wars and the attempts by the British Navy to hunt down and destroy (or at least bottle up) the combined Spanish and French fleets. In other words, it's a game about blockade running. The Napoleonic Era has always lost me in terms of tactical or even operational games, although I do enjoy strategic games such as Wellington. The game appears to be easy enough that it might see some play at WBC West next spring if I play my cards right, or even earlier. However, it will take some doing to play it solitaire as the fog of war, as in PQ-17, is a very large part of the game. The map is gorgeous, although the blocks are significantly larger than the stickers you put on them, and in fact I'm a little concerned that they may be easy to knock over. That would be bad.

Which brings us to the games that came this week. First up is Hellenes, from the same guy who designed East Front and it's followups. I'm not sure how this game ended up at GMT while Athens & Sparta ended up at Columbia Games, but I'm sure someone will clear that up for me. All I've really had time to do is to put the stickers on the blocks for this one, although the components are very nice. However, and I'm really disappointed to see this, it appears that the designer/developer chose to stick with Columbia's brain-dead "not rules but maybe some optionals and oh yeah, a couple of really important rules or clarifications in the sidebar" format. It was a great idea, but the simple matter is that the separation between the two has been, urm, fuzzy and there are rules in the sidebar and non-rules in the rules in every game that uses them. Here's hoping that it got done right for once. On the plus side, the rules are in color, as is the very nice examples book. I'm sensing a trend here, and I *think* I like it. The problem is that the paper used for color rules tends to be glossy and relatively flimsy compared to, say, an OCS rulebook. Make them color in PDF, and heavier paper in the box, please.

The last two games are, technically, not actual games at all but expansions for the popular Command & Colors: Ancients game system. I stick by my assertion that for wargamers, this is the best of Richard Borg's C&C series for a variety of reasons involving component functionality and at least a passing attempt to model ancient warfare. The second and third expansions brought in very  nice mounted mapboards, and the fourth (Imperial Rome) and fifth (Epic) expansions bring in very nice wooden card holders.


These are kind of odd expansions. Imperial Rome adds a *third* Roman army (this one purple), although I'm not sure what the differences are with the silver and red armies. I know there are rules for Caesarian armies (as opposed to the Marian armies used in battles from roughly 100BC through 50BC), and there are also extra units for both the barbarian armies from expansion two and the "Eastern" armies from expansion one. The scenarios are apparently a catch-all for scenarios that they couldn't fit in the box from before. Still, it feels a little like they weren't sure what to do with this particular expansion once they'd announced it. Whatever. It's still fun putting all those stickers on all those blocks, although you need to be paying attention while you do it.

The Epic box is an even stranger duck. It has two more wooden card holders (which seem very nice and appropriately hefty, especially compared to the crap plastic holders from earlier games), an improved Epic ruleset, and (most importantly) an actual deck of cards for playing the Epic games. That's awesome, because that's the thing that was really missing from before. You could use the old cards, but there were so many altered cards that it was nearly impossible to keep track of what was in your hand. I *love* the Epic scenarios, even with two people, because they're, well, epic. If you have the two mounted maps from the earlier expansions, this expansion puts this particular game series over the top in terms of high end components, no question. While there aren't any plastics as with every other game in this series, to be honest I find them harder to keep track of if you have more than a couple of types, and while the tiny illustrations can be confusing initially, it only takes a few turns to get a solid grasp on which units are which.

Now what they need are some really good dice.

However, I have to say that while I'm happy to have these expansions, they feel more like add-ons instead of continuations to the system, if that makes sense. It's like having a new bike route to ride instead of a new bike, if you see what I mean. These are all good things to add to the game system, but perhaps they should have been there from the start, making the game what it should have been all along component-wise. Even the extra scenarios for the Epics are nice, but a whole box just for them, two wooden blocks to hold cards, and an extra card deck? I'm being petty here, I know. I'm happy to have a game that looks so great, but I feel a bit like I paid to get the deluxe package when I already paid to have the nearly deluxe package.


Of all of these, C&C: Music Factory will have the biggest chance of seeing table time, followed a bit by Hellenes, then 1805, then PQ-17 (unless I decide to make the drive out to Tex's place). In fact, I don't mind playing C&C solitaire at all, seeing as you can simulate a bit more of the uncertainty of the cards by simply playing an extra card "on deck" to be what that army will do in the *next* turn after the current one. It's pretty easy - The first army to move picks two cards to play, then discards the remainder and draws back up at the end of their turn. One card is used for the first turn, the other used for the second. The other side draws it's cards normally (without having seen the draw for the "first" side), and plays two cards in the same way as the first side. After that, each side plays one card as normal, although it's always going to be the "on deck" card. It works pretty well, as you don't know *two* cards that your opponent has, and allows for less intel when you have to look at your opponent's deck for the rare "response" card.

And the epic battles? That's just a good way to spend an afternoon out in the sticks when no one can come over and play. And it looks *so* cool with that giant board and all of those units. SPQR had a very similar vibe for the larger battles, but I kept running out of markers and it could get very tedious. C&C plays much faster with less rules confusion, and still maintains a pretty decent simulation of ancient warfare given the ultra-low complexity (but still decent chrome).

I will report more on these as I get the chance to play them. Coming up, though, will be my first play of the long awaited A Victory Denied, Adam Starkweather's attempt to recapture the magic of A Victory Lost, which he developed for the American market from a Japanese game on the subject. Also, the next round in my epic Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign with Matt R, and a little more work on D-Day at Omaha Beach's late game scenario, which feels a *whole* lot different from the early game. Hard to believe that game came in one box.

Also, I'm happy to report that my B-29 campaign is still on track. I took a mission off when we went to Sunriver for the casual gaming retreat, but got my latest mission in a week early. It went really well except for the part where the bombs are supposed to fall out of the bomb bay and hit things. They did not, they did not, and I got to push them out one at a time on the way home. At least the heavy flak over Tokyo missed me.


Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

I would like to find some time to get 1805 in the table. There's no way on God's Blue Marble that I'll get Mike to play a naval game, let alone an operational one.

This game intrigues me, because I believe it is the only operational Age of Sail game ever developed.

That, and I love the tall ships.